Lucas Museum foes set a dangerous civic precedent

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A rendering of the proposed new design for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, in which the museum would take the place of the current McCormick Place East convention center building. | Provided

Over the course of the last month, a rare and broad coalition of civic leaders, organizations, and members of the public has coalesced to make sure the prospect of the Lucas Musuem of Narrative Art does not slip away from Chicago.

Business and labor representatives have come together to welcome the undeniable and much needed economic impact the museum would deliver with new jobs, new revenue, and millions of new tourists. Local environmental and architectural leaders have stressed how the museum — at either of the proposed Chicago sites — will add acres of new public parkland and hundreds of trees that would not otherwise exist.


Educators and religious leaders have emphasized the museum’s educational opportunities for diverse communities and how it will ignite the imaginations of our city’s children. And leaders of every major museum in the city have agreed that the Lucas Museum would be a welcome 21st-Century addition to our city’s unmatched community of cultural assets.

The Friends of the Parks — the group behind the lawsuit delaying construction of the museum — do not dispute any of these economic, cultural, or educational benefits. Instead, their common refrain is that allowing the Lucas Museum to be built on the Museum Campus will somehow create a “precedent” for unhinged private commercial development on the lakefront.

As attorneys with decades of collective experience between us, we recognize the importance of precedent, or the idea that one decision will be used as the basis or guide for further decision making. As longtime Chicago residents, we also value the distinctiveness of our lakefront and the need to preserve it. But the precedent at issue here is not the “slippery slope” that Friends of the Parks mistakenly continue to forecast, particularly in a federal court that has no jurisdiction over this state law issue.

The dangerous precedent unfolding here is that a small and unaccountable interest group can use the tactic of unending litigation (no matter how ultimately unsuccessful) to thwart a bold project that has already received approval from all the relevant democratically-elected bodies. The precedent being set is that such a small group can impose their agenda — which ignores that Daniel Burnham envisioned a lakefront enriched by parks and museums — and refuse to build any consensus with the multiple voices that subscribe to a different vision or prioritize other needs for the city.

We believe that the court ultimately will permit the Lucas Museum to be built on the lakefront and reject the notion that it would open the door to factories and condos clogging our lakefront. We believe a court will rule — as the court did with the Friends of the Parks’ past lawsuit on the Soldier Field renovations — that the city’s proposed lease to a non-profit museum does not violate the longstanding doctrine that the lakefront be used for the public benefit.

But we don’t have the time for the court to resolve this dispute. George Lucas and Mellody Hobson understandably will not wait for the lengthy litigation process to end, particularly when Friends of the Parks have committed to further lawsuits. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art — a gift valued at more than $1.5 billion — will find a new home in one of the many cities currently clamoring for it. And Chicago will not only have lost the largest philanthropic donation ever presented to it, we also will have created a dangerous precedent in the process.

Howard J. Trienens and Newton N. Minow are attorneys with the law firm of Sidley Austin, LLP.

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